Tag Archives: art

Lunch With Buffett

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With food-inspired songs such as “Charleston’s,” “Medium Rare,” and the album’s title track, the duo displays a penchant for sweet-sounding beats and aspirations to dine with Omaha’s most affluent resident, Warren Buffett.

They speculate that arranging lunch with the local billionaire would be easier than getting airplay on local radio stations.

“We want to be heard,” Big Tate says. “The radio DJ abides by guidelines that [forbid] touching the streets. They are afraid to challenge the norm.”

“Radio is stagnant,” Absolut-P adds. “It isn’t as influential as it once was. If we want to make an impact, we’d be better off putting together a lunch with Warren Buffett and creating a buzz from that.”

Or maybe just make up a song about having lunch with Buffett.

Big Tate

That sort of creative thinking would be the driving force behind Absolut-P (aka Stevin Taylor) and Big Tate (aka James Buckley) collaborating on the album.

The idea came from another friend’s fateful encounter with Buffett at a now-closed Omaha steakhouse known to be one of Buffett’s favorite local restaurants.

“A friend of mine happened to be eating at Piccolo Pete’s when she called to tell me that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were sitting across from her,” Big Tate recalls. “I told her that I needed her to get a picture of them by any means. I’m always thinking of ways to promote our music with imagery and catchy choruses. I was sure that I could come up with a song for that image.”

Big Tate was familiar with Buffett’s history of auctioning off a “power lunch” for charity. In 2016, an anonymous bidder paid $3,456,789 for the experience, with the money going to benefit the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and underprivileged residents.

For months, Big Tate continued to stew over his idea. Later in 2016, he partnered with local producer Absolut-P (the P stands for “Perfection”), and they were able to create an infectious melody.

The song’s music video even featured a faux cameo by Buffett (thanks to a cut-out photograph of the billionaire’s face pasted over one of their friends).

They consider it an homage to the wealthy hometown hero.

“We’re from the north side of Omaha, and you don’t see those types of people on the north side,” Big Tate explains. “Other than Bud Crawford, it’s hard to relate to anyone on such a big stage. It’s good to look up to self-made men.”

Absolut-P

“As independent artists, Warren Buffett’s entrepreneurial spirit gives us a sense of self-pride,” Absolut-P says. “He shows us that by investing in ourselves we can reap big rewards.” 

One such investment involved professional mastering for the album by Rick Carson at Make Believe Studios. Absolut-P and Big Tate hope the song resonates with fans of hip-hop, Omaha, and Buffett alike. They released the album Dec. 31, 2016 (with a parental advisory warning for explicit content).

“The album-making process was so organic,” says Big Tate, explaining that hip-hop works best when pursued in a natural, fun way. “We just made songs about what we like; everyone likes to eat at a nice restaurant and order a good prime rib. That made us think of Charleston’s; they have some of the best steaks in Omaha. I like my steak well-done, but I’ve heard that they are very good medium-rare.”

When asked where they would like to take Buffett for lunch, both agree that Time Out Foods or The Taste’s of Soul Cafe would be a good place to accommodate them.

“I’m sure Warren Buffett is used to eating at the finest establishments,” Absolut-P says. “I’d want to give him a taste of our roots with some good food for the soul.”

Find Big Tate on Twitter at @BigTate402 and Absolut-P at @IAmAbsolutP. Both musicians frequently release new songs on social media. Their respective Soundcloud accounts are soundcloud.com/big-tate and soundcloud.com/absolut-p. Lunch with Buffett is available on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Spinrilla, Google Play, and YouTube. Copies are sold at Homer’s in downtown Omaha.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

*Editor’s note: The printed edition misspelled Taylor’s first name as Steven.

Weird Is Good

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since transplanting from Pennsylvania nearly a decade ago, Christopher Vaughn Couse has made the observation that Omaha is downright weird—but in a good way.

From the hipster-laden streets of Benson to the apex of West Omaha’s suburbs, where cul-de-sacs meet cornfields—and of course there’s our friendly local billionaire, Mr. Buffett, who you may just spot snacking on a Dilly Bar—Couse is right: There’s no place like Homaha. As an artist, to pay homage to all the things that make Omaha, well, Omaha, Couse painted a simple black-and-white design with text that reads “Keep Omaha Good Weird.” It was part of Benson First Friday’s Tiny Mural Project.

“It’s about celebrating the city’s diversity and everyone’s willingness to embrace others for doing their own thing,” Couse says. Of course, it’s also a mix of the almost-revoked Nebraska mantra, “The Good Life,” and the “Keep Austin/Portland Weird” slogans.

If you’ve walked the streets of Benson or Dundee, stopped in at one of the latest oh-so-trendy and oh-so-healthy Eat Fit Go restaurants, or are familiar with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s “We Don’t Coast” campaign, you’ve likely seen Couse’s work. He may not be a Nebraska native, but with roots firmly planted in this city, his work as a freelancer, photographer, and illustrator seems to be sprouting up everywhere.

And that’s pretty darn good for a self-described “art school dropout.” It took just two years of classes in the art photography program at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for Couse to discover he needed to try a different path —and eventually a different city—to forge his career. Determined to utilize his keen eye and knack for creative styling as a professional artist, he knew it was time to move on from the world of lectures and syllabi when a professor told him art photography was a dead-end job.

“Just like that, tuition money became payments for nicer photography equipment,” Couse says.

Just because Couse was done with school didn’t mean he was done with education. He took his lack of professional training as a chance to personally develop his craft and began learning new mediums.

While he had been taking photographs since his teen years, the next evolution of his artistry came when he began combining his shots with handwritten notes to make collages. Then came illustrating and painting, then printmaking, and even working on zines. One glance at his Instagram, @christography, and you could argue he’s made social media his next canvas.

“I delve into different genres of art, figure out what I like, and begin incorporating these aesthetics into my own work,” Couse says. “I’ll admit, I have a bad problem of not sticking with one thing and instead trying to tackle a lot of things.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities across mediums. Stylistically, his work is usually filled with color, idiosyncratic humor, and his emotions as each piece reflects what he was feeling when it was created. Thematically, he regularly combines text with imagery, and he’s often inspired by the conversations, people, and the city surrounding him.

For one of his most popular series, a combination of party gossip and local lore inspired him. Shortly after moving, he heard boozed-up friends describing metro movers and shakers as “Omaha Famous.” Using his love for pop culture, he decided to borrow this phrase and started illustrating portraits of actual famous people who were born in Omaha. Perhaps nowhere else will you find a collection that includes the likes of activist Malcolm X, President Gerald R. Ford, and Lady Gaga’s ex and “cool Nebraska guy” Lüc Carl. There’s even a coloring book available online, so you too can shade the mugs of Conor Oberst and Marlon Brando for only $4.

“What I love about Omaha—and why it inspires me—is it has a small-town feel but in a big-city atmosphere. I haven’t found that elsewhere,” Couse says.

Couse has further made an impact in the community through his creative freelance work. Often collaborating with branding agency Secret Penguin, he’s helped design packaging for Eat Fit Go, design signs for Flagship Commons, and developed promotional material for
“We Don’t Coast.”

As if all that combined with balancing a full-time retail job and playing daddy to a newborn wasn’t enough, he also preps collections of his work to show at local galleries, with a recent exhibit at Harney Street Gallery.

“I’m always searching for ways I can do better in life, better in my craft,” Couse says.

With Omaha and all of its oddities keeping him so busy, art projects get done when he can find the time. If one makes him a sweet penny, then great. If not, that’s A-OK with Couse, too.

“My end goal is to have fun and inspire other people to create things,” Couse says. “It’s not complicated. I just hope my art makes people smile for even a second.”

And there’s nothing downright weird about that at all.

Visit christophervaughncouse.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Christopher Couse

June 15-18 Weekend Picks

June 15, 2017 by

PICK OF THE WEEK—Thursday, June 15: David Sedaris is back in Omaha and ready to draw you a little something to remember him by. Sedaris will be speaking and signing books at The Bookworm TONIGHT, promoting his latest book, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. The line forms at 5 p.m. Outside seating will be available and he will sign autographs. The acclaimed author is always a big draw, so be prepared to wait in line for one of his signature “signatures.” But regardless of how far back you are, don’t worry: He’s there for as long as it takes to greet everyone. To find out more, go here.

Friday, June 16: The standup scene in Omaha is slowly but surely growing, with special help from The Backline comedy theater downtown. But this weekend you can head to The Sydney in Benson to catch Gay Standup Comedy: Pride Edition. This is a recurring show that normally happens on the third Saturday of every month at The Backline and includes LGBT comics and allies of the LGBTQIA community. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the scene, now is the time. Show starts at 9 p.m. For more information, click here.

Friday, June 16: It’s that time of  year again, when Omaha becomes the home of college baseball and you start overhearing Southern drawls asking for sweet tea. And since the CWS moved to NoDo, Slowdown has been a go-to spot for all the fans looking for a break from the stands. This Friday DJ Werd and Satchel Grande play a free “dance party” for those fans and for anyone else willing to brave the heat and the crowds. To check out all Slowdown has to offer during the series, click here.

Saturday, June 17: If you want to avoid the crowds downtown this weekend, now is the perfect time to check out what Stinson Park in Aksarben has to offer this summer. The Stinson Concert Series brings local bands to the park for free Saturday evening shows throughout the summer. This week’s free show starts at 7 p.m. and will feature cover band Finest Hour. So get out and get down this weekend. To see what else is going on at Aksarben, take a look at the calendar here.

Saturday, June 17: Start Pride Week off right by checking out the Heartland Pride Parade in Council Bluffs this Saturday at 10 a.m. The parade kicks off a week-long celebration of LGBTQIA people and culture here in the Midwest, but it is just the beginning. To find out about other Pride events or to volunteeer, head here and see how you can become “alive with pride.”

Sunday, June 18: For those whose fathers could care less about baseball, the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum is offering free admission this Sunday for Dads who want to spend Father’s Day checking out some cool planes and maybe taking a crawl through the C-47 Skytrain. This is a family outing, so sorry if you were looking to escape, Dads. The kids have to be with you if you want to qualify for the free entry. For full details, buzz on over here.

Sunday, June 11: Still trying to figure out what to get your dad for Father’s Day? How about a rescue dog? This Sunday, Taysia Blue Rescue will have volunteers hanging out from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at The Green Spot with some of their adoptable huskies and malamutes. They will answer any questions you might have about what it takes to become a rescue parent for these lovable creatures. For more info, click here.

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Seamus Campbell Takes the Stage

June 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like so many kids, 9-year-old Seamus Campbell loves The Jungle Book. He’s one of countless children to be enchanted by the thought of boppin’ around the jungle with cool, scat-singing Baloo, relishing the “Bare Necessities” that can make life so grand.

But he’s not just another kid imagining himself to be Mowgli, the freewheeling man-cub searching for his place in the jungle. This year, Campbell became Mowgli.

Omaha Performing Arts’ Disney Musicals in Schools program, produced in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Group, let Campbell and some of his Harrison Elementary classmates take on the role of storyteller and perform in their own production of The Jungle Book.

Campbell, who played the role of Mowgli, uses words like “proud” and “fun” a lot when describing his experience.

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Campbell’s love of The Jungle Book—particularly Disney’s 1967 animated movie version—was his original inspiration to participate. He describes Mowgli as “very stubborn,” but says his character learns “a whole lot, like trusting your friends and listening to others.”

Kathleen Lawler Hustead, Omaha Performing Arts’ education manager, says her team kicked off the program for the 2016/2017 school year, letting third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students from five OPS elementary schools explore musical theater from a new angle. Omaha Performing Arts is the 13th arts organization in the nation to implement the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which began in 2009.

“Disney only selects performing arts organizations with strong education departments, so we were thrilled to be among the select few brought into the program,” Lawler Hustead says.

The program is designed for sustainability, so Disney-trained, local teaching artists work with each school in its first year to develop school team members into music directors, choreographers, and stage managers, with the skills and confidence to continue the program when the teaching artists transition to the next batch of first-year schools.

“The great part about this program is it will continue for many years to come,” Lawler Hustead says, noting that after schools complete year one, they move to alumni status and continue to receive support and free or discounted materials in subsequent years. “We’ll add five new schools each year, with the eventual goal of nearly every elementary school in the Omaha area, and potentially beyond, having these sustainable musical theater programs.”

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Participating elementary schools are chosen based on need and commitment to sustaining the program in coming years. In addition to Harrison performing The Jungle Book, Omaha’s other Disney Musicals in Schools pioneers were Crestridge, Kennedy, and Wilson Focus—each performing The Lion King—and Liberty performing Aladdin.

After 17 weeks of preparation and rehearsal, Campbell and the other participating students performed the 30-minute shows at their schools. They also performed select songs at an all-school Student Share Celebration, produced by Omaha Performing Arts and held at the Holland Center.

“I am so proud of our kids and staff,” Harrison Principal Andrea Haynes says. “It just shows you that kids have this capacity and latent talent, and it’s our job to give them opportunities to cultivate that.”

Teaching artists Kelsey Schwenker and Sarah Gibson coached the Harrison team, which consisted of (director) fourth grade teacher Callen Goodrich, (music director) first grade teacher Anna Rivedal, (choreographer) librarian Rachel Prieksat, (stage manager) parent Danielle Herzog, (costume and set designer) paraprofessional Elizabeth Newman, and (production assistant) school secretary Linda Davey.

While the team successfully conjured Disney magic, there was much more to it than a simple flick of Tinker Bell’s wand. The school team and students devoted many extra hours of hard work and practice. Campbell is quick to agree that being in a musical is part work and part play—so what made him want to devote extra time between busy school days and evening Boy Scouts meetings?

“To make everyone like the play,” he says. “Since my parents and everyone are going to see it, I want to do a good job and make my family proud.”

Campbell’s eyes light up when he describes seeing the set and costumes for the first time.

“When the door opened, we saw there were vines, plants, and a rock—and it was raining glitter!” Campbell says.

The Harrison team created a vibrant jungle atmosphere and costumed the cast into a believable band of panthers, monkeys, snakes, tigers, wolves, bears, and, of course, one “man-cub.” At the Student Share, the creative, colorful costumes on display from all the schools were second only to the students’ enthusiasm.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what this program does for students and teachers, and to watch the students light up and grow over the process,” Lawler Hustead says. “Not only are they learning to sing, dance, and act, they’re learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, self-confidence, and how to be a team player.”

Campbell, who also loves Star Wars, football, and Percy Jackson, says his experience taught him to be brave and, of course, that the show must always go on.

“[If you mess up], you just redo the line or skip by that line,” he says confidently.

Haynes says exposing young kids to the arts fosters an important self-reliance.

“It can plant the seed in them that they can do anything,” she says. “That sense of self-confidence is so important in this world, and will carry you through all kinds of obstacles.”

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Seamus Campbell

Required Listening

June 11, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For years, Chelsea Balzer and Matt Walker ran in the same circles, but somehow didn’t cross paths until Balzer joined the art performance group aetherplough in 2010 and was suddenly thrust into a musical relationship with Walker. Their undeniable compatibility was too much to ignore, and the duo soon formed their own outfit—Vital Organs—a band that fosters Walker’s unquenchable thirst for bold melodies and cinematic qualities, but is danceable at the same time. 

“Back in the day, I was exclusively into hard rock music,” Walker says. “In recent years, I had been dying to write something that made me want to dance.”

Balzer, on the other hand, gravitated toward country artists like Reba McEntire and early LeAnn Rimes because of her father, a loyal country music fan. 

“I would perform for our neighbors and their friends, which I think helped me develop that frontwoman identity from early on,” Balzer says. “But once I hit middle school, I was pretty into Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple, and then soon after I got into stuff like Nine Inch Nails, P.J. Harvey, and The Cure. I’ve always loved vocalists who are brave and provocative—from Christina Aguilera to Zach de la Rocha.” 

Fortunately, Vital Organs isn’t their first endeavor, as aetherplough thoroughly prepared them for what they would do in the future. The collective was built on collaborative creativity and taught them how to compromise.

“It always felt a little like we had no idea what we were doing at the beginning of a project,” Walker says. “As more people threw in their ideas and questions, it would start to take on a life of its own, and suddenly you’re rehearsing a full piece that you all helped bring into being. It was magical.

“I would say our whole philosophy for creating and collaborating is informed by that experience,” he continues. “aetherplough taught us to say, ‘Yes,’ to go all in, to be flexible, and also to listen to each other in a dasdrtist, and I’m so grateful to have been encouraged to play and explore in that community.”

“I personally feel that it taught me to think of all art and performance as ritual that has the power to change its players,” Balzer adds. 

Officially established in 2015, Vital Organs dove right in and pulled from Omaha’s rich musical community, including Make Believe Recordings’ CEO/engineer Rick Carson. The Grammy Award-nominated producer worked on the group’s debut album, The Hysterical Hunger, a decision they didn’t hesitate to make once they fully realized Carson’s “rare combination of expertise, intuition, and top-notch gear.” The album itself gave Balzer and Walker opportunities to explore feminist ideals and the theme of honoring inner desires. 

“We were both going through some real loss, and we needed to rediscover some kind of inner guidance toward true north,” Balzer explains. “For us, that feels like a hunger. We liked the idea of reclaiming the word ‘hysteria,’ which has previously been used as a weapon against women and as a form of gaslighting, but ultimately implies that emotion itself is untrustworthy and that giving yourself over to an experience is dangerous and even insane. We feel that this message is really prevalent in society today and continues to cause harm. We wanted the album to be a way of proclaiming to ourselves and others that we are taking the leap and giving in to that hunger.” 

Drawn to synthesizers and soaring melodies, Vital Organs is actively honing in on its distinctive sound. However, they’re admittedly still trying to figure out how to navigate the rough waters as an indie band. 

“It’s a lot of work and also a lot of head-scratching,” Walker says. “We have been both discouraged and really honored by the process of getting our work ‘out there.’ Some aspects of it are much harder than we anticipated, and yet there are these people who seem to appear from thin air and develop this relationship with your music, and really want to help you succeed. That has been a beautiful experience.”

Vital Organs plans on hitting the road this summer, despite Balzer being in grad school in Boston and Walker busy working at Omaha Children’s Museum. They managed to carve out a few weeks to play some new cities and share the bill with other bands. 

“We know that the music will always mean something different to us than it means to others,” Walker says. “Every song reflects a time in our lives and a message we felt we needed to express. At the same time, we hear the songs and sort of forget that we wrote them. There is a kind of energetic release that comes from finishing songs and letting them exist in the world. It feels simultaneously intimate and mysterious.” 

facebook.com/vitalorgansband

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

 

Mr. & Mrs. Fink

June 1, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The evolution of CLOSENESS was quite literally a matter of the heart—not in a cheesy, romantic musing type of way, but the actual blood-pumping, life-sustaining muscular organ. Husband-wife duo Orenda Fink (Azure Ray) and Todd Fink (The Faint) are the masterminds behind the electro-dream-pop project. The couple say they always wanted to merge musical styles, but they could never quite find the time. Todd was touring in support of The Faint’s last album, Doom Abuse, and Orenda was involved in her solo work. As fate would have it, a frightening medical emergency involving Orenda’s heart temporarily brought everything to a screeching halt. In November 2015, she went under the knife to repair a birth defect that was
originally misdiagnosed.

“I had it my whole life, but never knew how dangerous it was,” Orenda admits. “They couldn’t believe I was still alive [laughs]. With my condition, I had a bunch of extra electrical pathways on my heart that were not supposed to be there. They had to get rid of them.”

“We realized there was no better time to do this,” Todd adds. “If we were going to do it, we had to do it now. After her surgery, everything became more urgent.”

Todd and Orenda have been a unit for more than 15 years, and it just so happens both are incredibly talented musicians in their own right. It was because of this shared love and compassion for one another that Orenda finally took her arrhythmia seriously. 

“I’ve had episodes my whole life,” she says. “A couple of weeks before I was diagnosed, my heart went into an abnormal rhythm. Normally, it would kick back in, but this time it just stayed. I was just so used to it that I was traveling, smoking cigarettes, hanging out with friends—but Todd was like, ‘Um, you need to go to the doctor immediately [laughs].’”

Orenda flew back to Omaha and went straight to the doctor. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the Georgia native was having heart surgery, which was the first time she’d ever had any kind of surgical procedure. What was supposed to be a three-hour event turned into 12 hours, but thankfully she pulled through. 

“Your heart is such an immediate thing—it has to be going,” she says with a hint of sarcasm. “It made us kind of realize how precious and fragile life is, I guess.” 

Back at home, she sunk into a depression, which can be common for heart patients. 

“When you are faced with your own mortality so intensely, you get depressed,” she says. 

Still recuperating in sweatpants and socks, CLOSENESS took its initial steps and Orenda quickly found solace in making music with her husband. 

“We started the band almost immediately,” she says. “It was cathartic. Something about that experience [surgery] made me realize now there were no more excuses not to do it.” 

On March 10, CLOSENESS unveiled its debut EP, Personality Therapy, and had its album release party later that night at Omaha’s beloved hole-in-the wall O’Leaver’s, where Todd and Orenda played to a packed house. Naturally, the Omaha music community came out in droves to support one of their own. Shortly after, the duo hit the road for Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival and continued their road trip to New York City, something they’ve wanted to do for years. 

“We’re looking to tour as much as possible,” Todd explains. “It’s part of why we wanted to do a band with just the two of us—to be able to make kind of, like, a vacation out of it, where it’s just the two of us together, and we’re able to drive around in our car. It’s not like working. We don’t have to be away from each other to do what we’re doing. I am really looking forward to that aspect.” 

While traveling with other people has its merits, it also has its challenges. Oftentimes, the vastly different personalities can throw a wrench in the process, but for the Finks, it makes more sense. 

“We’ve been together for so long that our tastes have melded,” she says. “From what we like to do to where we like to eat—we just know each other. That’s one of the hardest parts about being on the road with other people—always having to compromise. This seems like a dream scenario.” 

Being a quintessential “rock-star couple,” however, didn’t always come easy. In the beginning, like all relationships, there were some hiccups, but it was nothing they couldn’t work through. 

“He got in trouble in the beginning years,” she jokes. “Not like cheating or anything, but figuring out what a married man can do—like he couldn’t go skinny-dipping with girls on tour anymore [laughs].”

“I thought the ocean was huge [laughs],” he replies. “You don’t get a manual when you get married. You don’t know exactly where the line is.” 

One big lesson they learned, however, is to not get caught up in the minutiae of everyday life. 

“Pick your battles,” Orenda says. “You have to keep the greatest good of the relationship as the highest priority. Everyone slips on that in any relationship. If you’re in a really intense working relationship together, you’re going to have friction. It’s figuring out how to deal with that friction. You want the outcome to be forgiveness and loving each other. If you slip up, remember that’s the ultimate goal.” 

“Winning an argument really isn’t worth anything,” Todd adds. “The goal isn’t to win. It’s to get back to a place of love.”

facebook.com/closenessmusic

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

Broom Man

Photography by Kent Sievers

Sculptor John Lajba has made a name for himself by documenting Omaha’s most iconic figures. His subjects range from joyous to somber.

One of his bronzes, The Road To Omaha, is a familiar image broadcast during ESPN coverage of the College World Series.

When police officer Kerrie Orozco was killed in 2015, hundreds of mourners left flowers and mementos at the foot of Lajba’s fallen officer sculpture, just outside of Omaha police headquarters.

Now, a group hopes another unforgettable figure will join the ranks of Lajba’s definitive sculptural portraits of Omaha history.

Family and friends knew the bronze-to-be as the Rev. Livingston Wills. For the rest of the city, he was “The Broom Man,” a man born with only 5 percent of his vision who traversed the city on foot, for decades, selling his brooms.

The Broom Man Project—formed in March 2016—is an effort by David Jensen, Jim Backens, Marc Kraft, and Lajba to memorialize Wills, who died in 2008 at the age of 91. Almost 10 years after his death, people still vividly recall Wills selling his brooms on routes that took him through North Omaha, Benson, and up through Countryside Village.

The Broom Man Project launched a GoFundMe campaign last October to fund a sculpture in honor of Wills. Since its launch, the site has raised approximately $9,000 of its $150,000 goal. Downtown Omaha Inc. has almost matched that amount, bringing the total raised so far to about $15,000.

“Our very first contribution was five dollars,” Jensen says.

A Facebook page, dedicated to Wills, is filled with posts recounting memories of meeting him. One post called for people to post pictures of brooms purchased from Wills.

While many fondly recall long conversations with Wills, at times, he could be very business-oriented: Get the sale. Move on to the next customer. Get another sale.

Jane’s Health Market in Benson is situated at the location of one of his many regular stops. Owner Jane Beran says she bought several brooms from Wills.

“I can’t remember him sticking around much. I would just buy a broom from him, and he’d be on his way,” Beran says.

Wills was born in Brownsville, Tennessee, about 60 miles northeast of Memphis. In Brownsville, he began making brooms out of cornstalk. He eventually moved to Nebraska, where he studied English and history at Union College in Lincoln. He then moved to Omaha, where he was a pastor at the Tabernacle Church of Christ.

For decades, to support his family, he would sell brooms, going door-to-door and to businesses. Toting brooms over his shoulder, and using a cane for support, he would use his whistle as a sort of a sonar to detect nearby obstacles. Lance Criswell, grandson of Wills, would see him when he was done with a typical workday.

“I’d say, ‘What have you been doing, Rev.?’ and he’d say ‘scratchin,’” Criswell recalls. “‘Scratchin’—that means he’s been working.”

In 2006, Barbara Atkins-Baldwin wrote a book based on her family’s experiences with Wills. The book, The Blind Broom Salesman, was reissued with a new cover last year. Atkins-Baldwin pledged to donate all of the profits from her book to The Broom Man Project. In November, Leavenworth Bar posted a check for more than $550 to go toward the sculpture on The Broom Man’s Facebook page.

When it came time to choosing a location for the proposed statue, Lajba wanted the Douglas County Courthouse because of the building’s downtown location and its historical significance. When he first heard about making a sculpture in Wills’ honor, Lajba envisioned him in his usual routine: walking the streets of Omaha with his array of brooms.

“I want him to be well dressed,” Lajba says. “I really want to show how he cared about himself.”

Criswell says his grandfather had more than a hundred suits. “He’d always like to look professional when he was out selling his brooms,” Criswell says.

Criswell sat with Jensen, Lajba, and Tom Hanus at Tourek Engraving to discuss his grandfather and his impact on the Omaha community. As they conversed, the temperature outside was a crisp 18 degrees, much as it would have been when Wills walked his routes in winter.

Tourek Engraving has become sort of a centralized headquarters for the Broom Man Project, with copies of The Blind Broom Salesman stacked beside flyers that detail the Broom Man Project’s ambitions.

“If he walked through this door right now, he’d squeeze through the door, because the brooms would be over his back, and he’d say, ‘My friends!’” Criswell says, pointing to the front door. “He’d always come in with that presence. He became a part of the fabric of Omaha.”

Visit gofundme.com/thebroomman and facebook.com/livingstonwills to learn more about The Broom Man Project.

Dave’s World

May 25, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Prolific painter and tattooist Dave Koenig says people often ask him, “How do you develop a style?” or, more precisely, “How did you develop your style?”

For an artist who is known and recognized from Omaha all the way to Chaudes-Aigues, France, for his particular brushstroke and trail of ink, Koenig humbly says he doesn’t recognize a certain style in his work. He just sees himself as someone who draws “the same stuff everybody else draws.”

“I’m not the most technically refined tattooer, and I’m not the most technically refined artist. But I tend to try to pull a level of emotion, on a subconscious level, to every piece I draw,” Koenig says. “And I feel like that creates something different.”

His colleague of more than 10 years and co-worker at Tenth Sanctum Tattoo (1010 S. 10th St.), Tobias Caballero, says one element that contributes to Koenig’s style is his use of line. “If you look at his lines, you’ll be able to see Dave in it,” Caballero says. “It’s almost like watching Bruce Lee fight. You can tell that Bruce Lee has found the best of everything and combined it into his fighting. It’s the same way Dave has compiled this formula of how he creates art.”

Koenig says line work is a crucial component to some of his most requested work—like tattoos of his signature female figures. “The lines that you put on them—say it’s the hair, or where their eyes or mouth are—it has to be exact,” he says. “The line has to count. One slight off with one of those lines, it can completely change the emotion of the piece. I like to take the time to refine each of them.”

Before he began tattooing, or started taking his painting too seriously, Koenig says it was his graffiti-style art he was known for. It is, in fact, what got his foot in the door to begin apprenticing at his first tattoo shop 17 years ago.

“He learned really young in life that style is something he valued,” Caballero says. “It all started when he was doing his graffiti and he started integrating that into his tattoos, and that influenced his paintings, and then he just simply continued to refine it, and it turned into something only he can do now. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Influenced by Japanese and American traditional tattooing styles, as well as a mix of art nouveau and art deco, Koenig has crafted a signature look that is not only recognizable but also heavily sought after.

Koenig’s tattoo regulars and hopefuls are so obsessed with his work that they will wait—often lengthy periods—to obtain their very own Dave Koenig masterpiece. His tattooing schedule, on average, is booked out at a staggering 18-24 months.

His artwork can be found screen-printed on shirts at Curbside Clothing (505 S. 11th St.), illustrated on the beer cans at Brickway Brewery & Distillery (1116 Jackson St.), hanging on the walls of bars and businesses, and covering the bodies of his devoted tattoo clients. It can also be found across Europe and South America, in tattoo magazines and books, and hanging on walls around small towns in France and Italy.

The charm of his personal brand of art has proven strong. In 2016, Koenig was asked to design the poster for the 2016 Chaudes-Aigues tattoo convention in France. For the poster, he created his own rendition of the town’s coat of arms. The Chaudes-Aigues family, whom the town is named after, was so seduced with his vision that they adopted his work to use as the new version of their family crest.

When Zac Triemert, owner of Brickway, decided to open the brewery in 2013, he says Koenig was the first person he thought of to incorporate into the business’ branding. He was hired to create the artwork for Brickway’s logo, signage, and the labels on their Bison Series beer.

“His work is iconic. You can’t see Dave’s work without knowing that is absolutely Dave Koenig’s work,” Triemert says. “And I love his style. It’s really fun, strong, and aggressive.”

Caballero dubs Koenig’s work as difficult to describe with mere words. He says it has to be seen to be understood.

“He’s found the perfect combination of understanding technique as well as understanding how to be loose with his work—as well as understanding color theory,” Caballero says. “He’s kind of created a perfect storm for himself where he doesn’t wind up in a place where he’s repeating himself. He’s always working toward becoming better, and he’s managed something he’s built into his own personal empire.”

Despite his ever-growing fan base and unending praise, Koenig never boasts about his success. The way he sees it, he’s still “just some Omaha kid” and says he’s “blessed and happy people like my work.”

Although humble about his impact on the art and tattoo scene, his talent and appeal are undeniable. He has managed to captivate audiences around the globe with his technical skill, knack for detail, and ability to evoke striking emotion.

Now that he has created his own strong sense of brand, Koenig says, it’s on to his next goal: How to help the world through his art?

“The whole point is ‘What’s your legacy?’,” Koenig says. “I just draw pictures; how do you help everything as a whole through drawing pictures? It’s the tracks we leave behind that people remember forever. You’ve got to make sure to leave some big tracks and make sure they’re walking in the right direction.”

dkoenigart.com

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.

May 25-28 Weekend Picks

 

PICK OF THE WEEK—Saturday, May 27: Benson’s annual Memorial Day Massive Block Party is back, and this time, you might just see Jesus. Space Jesus, that is. He’ll be performing at The Waiting Room’s after party later that evening. But to see the full show, you’ll need to head to Benson a little earlier in the day. Festivities start at 4:30 p.m. and last well into the night, with outdoor performances by Snails, Boombox Cartel, ARMNHMR, and PRXZM. These shows are all ages, but if you want to enjoy yourself in a more adult-oriented atmosphere, check out the after party at Reverb Lounge, which will be 21-plus. Outdoor amenities at Reverb include a full bar, food vendors, portable restrooms, and non-alcoholic drink stations for those who wish to remain well-hydrated. For more details and to find our more about the performers, click here.

Thursday, May 25 – Sunday, May 28: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert may just be one of those adaptations that’s even more fun on stage than on the big screen, which you can now see at the Blue Barn Theatre. Based on a cult film from the ’90s, this musical extravaganza is filled with popular, easy-to-sing-along-with dance tunes that will make it hard to stay in your seat. The story follows two drag queens and a transsexual as they travel across the Australian outback in a lavender van they’ve nicknamed, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” The trio encounter hardships and make friends, and, of course, do a lot of singing in the process. The show will run Thursday through Sunday until June 25. Get your tickets now here.

Friday, May 26: Do farmers markets sound like they could be fun, but they just happen a little too early in the morning? If this sounds familiar, get ready to rejoice. This Friday is Omaha’s inaugural Turner Park Night Market. While they may not have the selection of produce one would find at typical farmers markets, there will be a vendor village, with more than 20 local vendors, and a small food festival featuring food-on-a-stick from Midtown Crossing area restaurants. Attendees can play giant outdoor games, from chess to Jenga, or they can participate in some moonlight yoga, with local yoga guru Lora McCarville. Of course, what would a night market be without a little live music? Best of all, it’s free and dog-friendly, so bring the pooches out for some quality get-down time. For more details, go here.

Saturday, May 27: Everyone knows you should eat a little somethin’ before heading out for a day/night of drinking, so check out the Food Truck Extravaganza at the Infusion Brewing Company southwest Omaha location. There will be BBQ, tacos, pizza, and fish and chips to soak up all the tasty beer you’ll want to try. But if you plan on doing some blow-up sumo wrestling, you might want to wait until afterward to check out all the beer and food so you don’t accidentally throw up. Money raised from the wrestling and from a ring toss will go to Food Bank of the Heartland and Team Blake: Fighting Against Leukemia, so make sure you have a great time for some great causes. Find out more here.

Sunday, May 28: If you’re not the camping type and you’re looking for something fun to do this Sunday, take yourself out to the Alamo Drafthouse and watch one of your favorite ’80s stars do everything in his power to get the girl. Say Anything is a classic everyone can enjoy, either with your significant other or a group of your best friends. John Cusack delivers the charm in one of his most iconic roles. Hopefully it will erase his Hot Tub Time Machine performance from your memory. To learn more about seeing Lloyd Dobler’s finest hour-and-a-half on the big screen, click here.

Dream Team

May 24, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There’s a dazzling, eye-catching photo that adorns the bare-bones brick wall inside the photography studio at 1820 Vinton St.

A lovely girl sits in a deep-blue cloud of a dress, highlighted by silver accents. In the background, the grayish sky is streaked with pink-gold clouds. It’s a striking image, and an excellent example of the kind of work one can expect from the gentlemen of Elite, a boutique photography studio based in the historic Vinton Street Business District in South Omaha.

Elite’s Bernardo Montoya and Eric Gutierrez are an impressive pair. Montoya is dressed impeccably in light, subdued colors and wearing a fedora, a signature look for him. Gutierrez, on the other hand, is wearing a simple black T-shirt with dark blue jeans and a rust-colored vest, his brown, gray-streaked hair pulled back from his face.

Despite their contrasting appearances, it’s clear these business partners have an inspiring, deep, mutual respect for one another.

The two met about six years ago at an Omaha Police Department holiday event Montoya organized. At the time, Gutierrez was working in construction, but had long been interested in taking pictures.

“Photography has been a hobby for—the last 20 years,” he says, somewhat questioningly, chuckling a little.

After discovering Gutierrez was an amateur photographer, Montoya asked if he would like to volunteer his services for some of the events Montoya put together. Eventually, they were getting asked to do so much side work, they decided they should try to really make a go of it and invest in themselves and their talent.

Initially, the two worked out of Gutierrez’s Elkhorn home, using his living room, dining room, and kitchen as studio space. But about two years ago, they started working on their brick-and-mortar studio on Vinton Street.

Montoya says when they moved into the space, it was in “awful” shape, so they immediately started renovating.

“Walls were demolished, the false ceiling was removed, original floors were salvaged, and a new bathroom was built,” he says. “Every day we want to continue making modifications.” He said their next project is the façade.

Renovations aside, the neighborhood itself seems like the perfect place for Elite Photography. The developing business fits right in with the community’s burgeoning art scene, and they couldn’t be happier with their location. Montoya says it’s a great neighborhood with incredible potential that he believes the city plans on developing.

Gutierrez agrees: “I think that this street opens a door to, not just the Hispanic community, but to the community in general.”

“I never imagined the possibility of having a photography business like this, because I am a graphic designer,” Montoya said. He previously worked as a reporter in Mexico and in the U.S., taking pictures for articles and other projects as a part of his job. “But this was not my priority,” he says. “I discovered my passion for photography talking with Eric.”

Though Gutierrez had initially chosen a more cautious path, the passion had been there since he was young.

“At some point, when I was going to college, I told my mom that I wanted to be a photographer. She said, ‘No, don’t do that. Just do it as a hobby.’ And that was a mistake,” he says. “I always talk with parents about that. I tell them, you know, you’ve got to encourage your kids to do whatever they want.”

Fortunately, Gutierrez and Montoya have many opportunities to speak with and encourage parents, thanks to a partnership with Omaha Public Schools and the many high school senior and quinceañera photos they do.

Montoya says his inspiration and motivation comes from the looks on peoples’ faces when they first see how they look in their photos.

“We are talking about dreams, the dreams of the people,” he says. “When they talk to you and say, ‘I want to take a beautiful picture…I want to see a picture where I feel beautiful,’ it’s more than taking a simple picture. It’s making a connection with a person—seeing what they want.”

Making those dreams come true is their goal. Which makes perfect sense, since that’s what they seem to have done for each other, something that is very clear when they talk about their life’s work.

“I always say Bernardo was like an angel for me,” Gutierrez says, “because I didn’t know if I was going to do this for a living.”

But while they’ve been fortunate to find each other and develop a successful business, Montoya and Gutierrez have faced plenty of challenges, including Montoya’s recent diagnosis of a rare form of cancer—stage 2 soft tissue sarcoma.

In his typical, always-moving-forward style, Montoya is not letting the disease slow him down.

“Now I can see life with a different color,” Montoya says. “Yes, I have cancer, but it’s like I have the flu. I’m OK right now. I don’t know what will happen with me tomorrow. But you never know what will happen tomorrow—or in a couple of weeks.”

Instead, he says he’s using the diagnosis as a reminder to enjoy life, and his family, friends, work, and the connections he makes with
new people.

“I don’t want to think any bad things,” Montoya says. “I have a future, a plan. I know what I want. I have dreams and I am working toward my dreams.” 

facebook.com/EliteStudioPhotography

This article was printed in the May/June 2017 edition of Encounter.